Christianity According to Evangelicalism
by David F. Wells
Quotes from No Place For Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?
The attraction of evangelical faith, the, has been very intimately tied up with this reshaping of the American character. Evangelicals have always insisted that Christ is a person who can and should be known personally; he is not simply an item on a creed to which assent should be given. But from this point they have drawn conclusions that become increasingly injurious. They have proceeded to seek assurance of faith not in terms of the objective truthfulness of the biblical teaching but in terms of the efficacy of its subjective experience. Testimonies have become indispensable items in the evangelistic fare. Testifying to having experienced Christ personally is peculiarly seductive in the modern context, because it opens up to view an inner experience that responds to the hunger of the “other-directed” individual but often sacrifices its objective truth value in doing so. The question it poses to the outsider is not whether Christ is objectively real but simply whether the experiences is appealing, whether it seems to have worked, whether having it will bring one sensed the group and give one connections to others.
Today we “demand instant access to authentic reality,” he says, and these ministries do indeed offer instant and painless access, the authenticity of which is “guaranteed by subjective feeling, reinforce by group-engendered emotions”; the televangelists capitalize in the widespread perception that “reality is to be felt rather than congenitally realized.”
Descartes argued “I think, therefore I am,” and people after Freud translated that into the modern vernacular by saying, “I feel, therefore I am a self”; modern evangelicals of the relational type seem to have added their own quirk to it by saying that “I feel religiously, therefore I am a self.” The search for the religious self then becomes a search for religious good feelings. But the problem with making good feelings the end for which one is searching is, as Henry Fairlie argues, that it is possible to feel good about oneself, even religiously, “in states of total vacuity, euphoria, intoxication, and self-indulgence, and it is even possible when we are found wrong and know what we are doing.”
Second, the psychologizing of life undermines the desire and capacity to think, without which theology is obviously impossible. The psychologizing process identifies access to reality with subjective experience rather than objective thought. Alasdiar McIntyre contends that the presumption in favor of feeling over thought predominates in academia s well, to the point that the value of argument has simply disappeared. Questions of moment are now settled by how people feel about them. There are, in fact, only two ways in which they can be resolved: either by the rousing of emotion or by the exercise of external power. The prospects of settling questions by reasoned deliberation and debate have greatly dimmed, because, in the end, the collapse of the belief in truth and the bait of listening to the self have united to destroy what academic life once demanded.
By 1855, those who had been first were last, and those who had been last were first. The largest Protestant denominations were now the Methodists, the Baptists, and (a distant third) the Presbyterians. In fact, the Methodists and Baptists together constituted 70 percents of the Protestant population – predominance that has largely persisted to the present day. In this broad-scale triumph of Arminianism over Calvinism, says William McLoughlin, we see “the theological side of the political shift toward democracy.”
What this meant – and what it continues to mean – is that at the psychological center of much evangelical faith fare two ideas that are also at the heart of the practice of democracy: (1) the audience is sovereign, and (2) ideas find legitimacy and value only within the marketplace. Ideas have no intrinsic or self-evident value; it is the people’s right to give ideas their legitimacy. One implication of this belief is that the work of doing theology ought not to be left to an intellectual elite who may think that they are gifted for and called to do such work and may consider the discovery of truth to be an end in itself.
A Christian mind sees truth as objective. It seeks to understand reality s it is in itself, not as it seems to the subject.
The Christian mind has sought and found a way to understand life in the light of revelation; the modern mind rejects that light and turns instead to private experience for illumination. The Christian mind accepts God’s pronouncements concerning the meaning of life as the only true measure in that regard; the modern mind rejects such revelation as the figment of a religious imagination.
Today, reality is so privatized and relativized that truth is often understood only in terms of what it means to each person. A pragmatic culture will see truth as whatever works for any given person. Such a culture will interpret the statement hat Christianity is true to mean simply that Christianity is one way of life that has worked for someone, hut that would not be to say that any other way of life that has worked for someone, but that would not be to say that any other way of life might not work just as well for someone else.
It is precisely because Christian faith presents itself as objectively true that it has always exalted teaching. If there is a religion in the world that “exalts the teaching office,” James Orr said, “it is safe to say that it is the religion of Jesus Christ.” He went on to note that the doctrinal element, the substance of what could be taught, was conspicuous by its absence in paganism, whereas, by contuse, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the New Testament is the fact that it is “full of doctrine.” The New Testament “comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge….A religion based on mere feeling is the vaguest, most unreliable, most unstable of all things. Al strong, stable religious life can be built on no other ground than that of intelligent conviction.” Intelligent conviction requires for its underpinning and, its explanation, a truth that is objectively true. Unless truth is objective, it cannot be declared to others, cannot be taught to others, cannot be required of others. Wherever biblical religion has been recovered, the recovery of the teaching office is never far behind. Nor is the kind of biblical preaching the life and force of which the truth of Scripture. And wherever this preaching takes root, there the desire to know and practice God’s truth begins to blossom. And this is the soil, the only soil, in which theology can grow.
Excerpts from No Place For Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? David F. Wells’ No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology is a compelling, poetic and brilliant analysis of today’s ever-widening evangelical landscape. It would be difficult to find a book better suited or more convincingly argued than this, the first in Wells’ four volume series. In it, Wells, Gordon-Conwell’s eminent sociological-theologian, tracks the rise and progress of modernity within Western culture detailing its destabilizing and secularizing effects upon the often hapless souls of men. Wells’ thesis is simple: ours is a day that prizes pragmatisms and profitability. Where character and virtue were once touted and cultivated, now we are left with personality and image. Self-searching and self-fulfillment have triumphed, while self-sacrifice has been eschewed. “Spiritual, but not religious” is the mantra, or perhaps better, the bumper-sticker of our age. And sadly the church is hardly immune. On the contrary, as Wells records, “It may be the case that Christian faith, which has made easy alliances with modern culture in the past few decades, is also living in a fool’s paradise, comforting itself about all the things that God is doing in society (which is the most commonly heard religious version of this idea of progress) while it is losing its character, if not is soul” (68).